Freewill and Responsibility

One of the marks of humanity is that it has been created in the image of God as moral creatures. Mankind therefore has a responsibility to live in an ethical way, pursuing what is virtuously right and rejecting what is morally wrong. Within this calling is the debate on what kind of freedom mankind must possess to be able to fulfill this responsibility. This essay will examine what kind of freewill is required for moral agency, including the place of determinism within the compatibilist and incompatibilist views, and finally articulating why compatibilism is the better account for freewill in regard to moral and responsible agency.

When discussing freedom and freewill, it is important to make the distinction between the different senses that freewill is used. The first sense is that of freedom of permission, whereby social and political ideas of freedom are implied. The second is the freedom of personal integrity, whereby levels of maturity are considered in the development of a person’s life and conduct. The third aspect in which freedom is used is in the sense of moral and rational responsibility, whereby freedom is examined as “part of human action or agency, in which the human being acts as the agent who is in some sense the originator of one’s actions” (Moreland & Craig, 2017). It is this third sense of freedom which comes into consideration when discussing moral responsibility.

From the Christian worldview, followers of Christ are in agreement that humans possess freewill, but the debate among Christians centers around what exactly freewill is. Many have raised the question about what kind of connection is there between cause and effect. Some throughout the history of the Church have taught determinism, which is the idea that “every event is necessitated by another event, forming an inexorable causal chain” (Frame, 2015). With this view, it is believed that for something to happen, it must have been precipitated by another event. 

This concept of determinism has served to delineate and define the two main parties of debate. One view, known as compatibilism, accepts the idea of determinism but does not define it in a way which negates freewill. For compatibilists, every action a person performs is the result of causal chains of events that have led up to the action which is taking place. Furthermore, compatibilists argue that freewill is inconceivable apart from determinism. The reason why is because they argue that the only choices which are truly free are those caused by one’s character, beliefs, and desires. If these determining factors are not considered as causal chains of events in a person’s activity, then the events of that person’s life are random and accidental. This would eliminate the idea of freedom altogether. 

            For example, a person who orders a steak from the menu at a restaurant has made this choice based on determining causal factors. It was not a random uncaused event. If it were, then the person would not have had the freedom to control the choice.

The other view regarding determinism and freewill is the view of libertarianism. Libertarians define freedom in such a way that it is not compatible with determinism, and therefore, they deny it in regard to human freedom. They understand that for freedom to be present then there must not be anything influencing the choice that is made or the activity which is being performed. They view humans as being the absolute originator and “self-determining agent” of their own actions (Geisler, 1999). Furthermore, libertarianism holds that free acts are “spontaneously done by the agent himself acting as a first mover” (Moreland & Craig, 2017).

While the debate between compatibilism and libertarianism centers around the idea of determinism and what is exactly meant by freedom, it goes beyond this into other areas of debate. One of these is the ability condition. The ability condition says that in order for a person to have the freedom necessary for responsible agency, they must also have the ability to choose to act differently than the way they actually do. In this way, freewill is only present when a person can act in another way.

The compatibilist views the requirement of the ability to act differently than how they actually do as only having to be a hypothetical ability. If the conditions for a certain action would have been different, then that person could have acted in a different way. For the compatibilist, this is enough to establish the ability condition. An example of this would be the apostle Paul in Romans 7 where he describes the fierce battle between the law of his mind and the law of his flesh. He concurs that the things he desires to do in conformity with God’s law are those very things which he is incapable of doing. The opportunity to obey God’s law is a hypothetical ability, though because of sin he is unable to act. If sin were removed, he would act in accordance with the command. In this way, compatibilism establishes the individual responsibility of the person as moral agents accountable for their actions.

Libertarians perceive the ability condition as originating in the agent producing the act. For them, freewill requires categorical ability, meaning that responsible agency is only present when the person acting has the true ability to act as they did in a definite way; not merely hypothetical. For libertarianism, it would seem that they would view Paul’s responsibility in the struggle of Romans as not being anything to be overly concerned with because since he is bound by sin and therefore unable to do the thing which he desires to do, he is not responsible.

With the two views of freedom presented, the one which is a better theory in regard to moral and responsible agency is compatibilism. This is so for a couple of reasons. The first is that compatibilism recognizes the sovereignty of God in being the first cause of all causal chain events. It is God who has created man in His image with the character, beliefs, and desires that they have, though fallen because of sin. These causal chains of events, therefore, serve to point mankind back to the reality of God as the source and not to man. As a side note, the fallenness of mankind is not a problematic issue, because within compatibilism, for responsible agency to be established, there must only be the presence of the hypothetical ability and not the categorical ability which the libertarians maintain.

Second, compatibilism is the better choice because libertarianism would attempt to remove moral agency by establishing the self-determining power of the will. Jonathan Edwards in his treatise The Freedom of the Will refutes the “plainly absurd, and manifest inconsistence” of the self-determining power of the will. He points out that “actions are to be ascribed to agents, and not properly to the powers of agents; which improper way of speaking leads to many mistakes” (Edwards, 1974). One potential mistake is that if the will is the self-determining power producing the actions and the person himself, then where does the accountability for sin lie? In the libertarian view, moral and responsible agency would seem to be left in the power of the will instead of on the person who controls the operation of the will, both actually and hypothetically.Mankind’s responsibility as moral creatures created in the image of God is clear. Furthermore, for this to be true, mankind must possess the ability to carry out the responsibility of this calling. Within the principles of freedom and determinism, compatibilism offers the best choice over libertarianism in accordance with rational thought and biblical precedence for freewill in accordance with moral and responsible agency.

“…for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.” – Paul


Edwards, J. (1974). The works of Jonathan Edwards (Vol. 1). Banner of Truth Trust.

Frame, J. M. (2015). A history of western philosophy and theology. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing. ISBN 978-1-62995-084-6

Geisler, N. L. (1999). Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Moreland, J.P., & Craig, W. L. (2017). Philosophical foundations for a Christian worldview (2nd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. ISBN-13: 9780830851874

(This article was originally written and submitted as an assignment for the class Knowledge and Reality at GCU by this author and has been published here for this blogs’ readers – C. Cummings)

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